From the Desk of Roger Hecht (CPL’s Classical Music Specialist): Pierre Monteux Conducts the BSO at Saunders Theater, Part I

Pierre Monteux

By Roger Hecht, Reference Librarian and Classical Music specialist at the Cambridge Public Library.

The Paris-born Pierre Monteux began his musical career as a violinist before moving on to viola, and finally to conducting, starting in 1910.[1] The next year, he took a post at Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. In this capacity he conducted the premières of Stravinsky’s Petrouchka (1911) and The Rite of Spring (1913) (yes the one with the riot in Paris). He also premiered Debussy’s Jeux (1913) and Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé (1912), among several others. Monteux moved to the United States in 1916 where he conducted at the Metropolitan Opera from 1917 to 1919.  In the latter year, he became music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra where he remained until 1924. Monteux succeeded Henri Rabaud, who held the post for a year. Before that, the orchestra’s conductors were Germans or from the German school of conducting. It was Monteux who established the BSO as a “French” orchestra (though not without some resistance from players), both in style and repertoire. In 1924, he began an association with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, and in 1929 he took over the Orchestre Symphonique de Paris, which he conducted until 1935.

Monteux returned to the US 1935 (becoming a citizen in 1946) where he took over the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, remaining until 1952. In 1943, he founded The Pierre Monteux School for Conductors and Orchestra Musicians in Maine, where he taught Lorin Maazel, Neville Marriner, André Previn, David Zinman, and others. In 1951, he began working with the Boston Symphony again. He never resumed his music director status–Charles Munch held that post–but he led concerts in Boston until he died in 1964. His last music directorship was with the London Symphony Orchestra. He took the post at age 86, remaining until his death after blithely demanding a 25-year contract with an option for a 25-year renewal.

Monteux was a classic conductor of the Gallic style. His stick technique was second to none, and his interpretations were clean, detailed but in no way devoid of expression. He was not a great fan of recording, but he made several famous ones, many with Boston from RCA. Following is a partial list of what I consider the best known—many would make other choices. Included are all the BSO discs I know of and an occasional comment. Monteux made many fine recordings with the San Francisco Symphony, but I have not included them in favor of the better known ones.

Symphonie Fantastique
(Vienna Philharmonic)
Roméo et Juliette
(London Symphony). A classic.

La Mer
(Boston Symphony Orchestra
(London Symphony Orchestra)
(Boston Symphony)
Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien fragments
(London Symphony)

Symphony No. 7 (London Symphony)

Enigma Variations
(London Symphony). A classic to many, though somewhat overrated in my view.

Symphony in D Minor
(Chicago Symphony). One of the greatest of this piece.

Orfeo et Euridice

Symphonies 94 and 101
(Vienna Philharmonic)

Violin Concerto
(Leonid Kogan, Boston Symphony)

Franz Liszt
Les Préludes
(Boston Symphony)

(With Victoria de Los Angeles, considered still to be the best recording of this, though in mono)

Daphnis et Chloé
(London Symphony) Given that Monteux premiered this work, it’s too bad that he did not record it in stereo with the Boston Symphony. Perhaps it was because the BSO recorded it twice during Monteux’s time with the orchestra, with Music Director Charles Munch.

Ma Mère l’Oye (London Symphony)

(London Symphony). Somewhat overshadowed at the time by Scheherazades of Reiner and Beecham, a great performance nonetheless.

(Leonid Kogan, violin, Boston Symphony)

Symphony No. 2
(London Symphony). Another classic from his LSO directorship.

(1911 score, Boston Symphony). I don’t think Munch ever recorded this, so we get one of Monteux’s finest.

Rite of Spring (Paris Conservatoire, Boston Symphony). The Paris recording is in stereo, but not a very good performance. The BSO reading is better (not great) and in mono.

Symphonies 4, 5, 6
(Boston Symphony Orchestra). A surpise to me that these are as good as they are. Monteux did well in the Russian repertoire, but the BSO  brass of this era was nothing to write letters about.

La Traviata
. A wonderful example, along with Manon, Monteux classical way with opera.

Biographies on and recordings of Pierre Monteux can be requested through the Cambridge Public Library’s catalog, here:

[1] The famous (and apocryphal?) joke about Monteux was that he began his musical career on violin, when he found that too hard, he switched to viola, and finding himself daunted by that instrument as well, became a conductor.


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